For one weekend each fall, the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Banner Elk becomes the woolly worm racing capital. Now in its 42nd year, the Woolly Worm Festival draws cross-country visitors and locals alike for two days of cheering woollybear caterpillars to the finish line. This year’s festival takes place Oct. 19-20.
Races are held throughout the day Saturday and Sunday at Historic Banner Elk School in the heart of downtown. The overall winner of Saturday’s races earns a $1,000 grand prize and the honor of predicting the winter weather for North Carolina’s High Country. While Sunday’s races don’t involve forecasting privileges, participants still vie for prestige, along with a $500 prize.
“It’s really an all-American small town at its best,” says Mary Jo Brubaker, festival chairperson. “As a society, we go to such extremes to entertain people these days, but the down-home simplicity of this festival is wonderfully refreshing.”
The quirky tradition comes from mountain lore that says the 13 segments of a woollybear caterpillar represent the 13 weeks of winter. Black bands mean cold, snowy weeks, while brown bands indicate warmer conditions. However, each woolly worm sports a different color pattern, so the festival determines which one provides the official forecast.
The tradition began in the late 1970s when the editor of the now-defunct Mountain Living Magazine, Jim Morton, was preparing to include a Woolly Worm Forecast in the winter issue of the magazine. He photographed the first Woolly Worm he saw to use in formulating the prediction and illustrating his story, but the next day he saw a second worm that looked completely different from the first! “That’s when it struck me that we needed some formal procedure to use to decide which was going to be the official worm for making the winter forecast,” said Morton. So since 1978, the residents of the village nestled between the Carolina’s largest ski resorts have celebrated the coming of the snow season with a Woolly Worm Festival. They set aside the third weekend in October to determine which worm will have the honor of predicting the severity of the coming winter, and they let that worm earn the honor by winning heat after heat of hard-fought races up a three-foot length of string.
All attendees are welcome to race a woolly worm at the festival. They may bring their own or purchase one from the local PTO. The races take place in heats of 25 contestants. Each worm inches its way up a string as its owner coaxes and cheers. The first to the finish line advances to the next round.
No person is more likely to have a winning worm than any other person. There is no home-field advantage, no preferred age for the person who sets the worm on the string; although worms raced by children do seem to win a bit more frequently. Selecting names for the Woolly Worms is a delightful way to learn how amazingly creative your friends and family members can be! Consider these clever monikers: “Wormzilla”, “Patsy Climb” and “Dale Wormhardt”.
“We have families that have come year after year, and they wear family team T-shirts, like they’re a NASCAR racing team,” Brubaker says. “It’s so much fun to watch people racing the worms, and everyone’s laughing and cheering.”
In addition to the Woolly Worm Races, the festival features crafts, food vendors, live entertainment and much more. Last year’s festival attracted an estimated 20,000 fans, 170 vendors and around 1,000 race entrants.
Woolly Worm Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Those interested in racing a worm must register and are encouraged to do so by 1 p.m. each day. Daily admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger.